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WSU’s animal health research center to be dedicated

Researchers at Washington State University are making a big push to investigate the world’s deadliest infectious diseases on a global level.

Nowadays, viruses and bacterial infections can spread across the world in less than 24 hours, said Guy Palmer, a professor of pathology and infectious diseases at WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Most of those sicknesses spread to humans from animals.

“Somewhere between 60 and 75 percent of the diseases that infect humans over time have their origin in animals,” Palmer said. “You want to control the disease before it comes into humans.” 

WSU saw an opportunity to expand into a new field of research by creating the School of Global Animal Health to study the intersection of humans and animals in disease transmission.

This weekend, faculty and staff at the university will celebrate a milestone for the school at a dedication ceremony for its first official research facility, the Paul G. Allen Center for Global Animal Health.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation donated $25 million for the building, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen gave $26 million.

Construction wrapped up on the building at the end of July, and several researchers have already moved their supplies and teams of graduate students and lab technicians into the building.  

The new space will allow the college to attract the best and the brightest minds in disease research, said Palmer, who is the school’s director.

“We’ve really worked to develop the school as the first of its kind,” he said. “Five years ago, it was a pretty small effort. It took a while to actually get implemented.”

The mission of the school, Palmer said, is to explore ways to improve health and economic security throughout the world, especially for people living in dire poverty.

The center’s faculty works with researchers at partner institutions in Tanzania, Kenya and South America.    

The school’s researchers study a wide variety of infectious diseases, including avian flu, E. coli and the bubonic plague. One of the school’s most important areas of research, Palmer said, is studying how antibiotic resistance spreads on a global level.

“We’re very engaged in understanding how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics,” he said.

The school is also offering a new graduate program that explores the intersection between research into pathogenesis and epidemiology and the policymaking related to that research, said professor Bill Sischo, who runs the program.

“A vaccine doesn’t work if you can’t understand the sociology behind using it,” Sischo said. “We’re just getting our feet wet with those other pieces of the sociological aspects that drive disease transmissions.”

Students in the program travel throughout the country to discuss disease-related issues with policymakers. The curriculum takes students through a study of policymaking at the state and national levels while also exploring intergovernmental groups that work on the international level.

In addition to WSU, it involves students from the University of Minnesota, North Dakota State University and the University of California, Davis, Sischo said.

WSU’s ultimate hope is that the school will expand its footprint throughout the world, Sischo said.

“We would be far better off as a country if we understood the diseases where they were occurring,” he said.